Be a product owner ... like Steve Jobs

Principal, Duende Project Management Services


Whether you are a product owner, project manager, or a project team member, you can benefit from understanding how to be a product owner like Steve Jobs. Through his leadership at Apple, Steve Jobs introduced many revolutionary products, such as the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad; his techniques for bringing a product to market can be used in any project environment focused on the development of a product.

We can all learn from Steve Jobs. In his words, “Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?” (Elliot, 2011, p. 50) To become an innovative product owner requires thinking and doing differently. This paper will share habits and techniques used by Steve Jobs, which can be applied to any project.

This paper addresses seven techniques demonstrated by Steve Jobs in his pursuit of product excellence. This paper supports the premise that today's product owners and those professionals supporting the product owners in a project environment must think and execute differently in order to achieve product excellence. This presentation is organized around the following eight topics:

• The role of the Product Owner – excellent products require focused owners. This topic addresses the role of the Product Owner within the project environment. This section addresses both traits and responsibilities of the Product Owner.

• Setting vision – the ability to set vision and to execute against that vision effectively is a key attribute of an effective Product Owner. This section addresses some of the lessons learned from Steve Jobs and how these can be applied in the project environment.

• Finding passion for your product – passion for the product is vital to the development of revolutionary products. Learn from Steve Job's passion for products.

• Seeking simplicity – simplicity trumps complexity when it comes to products. Learn from Steve Jobs’ pursuit of simplicity for his products.

• Leading small product-focused teams – teams develop the product. Smaller teams with dedicated resources provide the greatest productivity.

• Failing your way to success – learn to lead your team in the process of failing your way to success. Harness the power of experimenting. Use experimentation to discover what works. Fail in small steps to achieve the big successes.

• Holding frequent review sessions – use the product review sessions to embrace change and innovation. Small incremental changes lead to successful products. Learn to embrace change instead of resisting change.

• Inspiring innovation – Learn from Steve Jobs by questioning everything and asking “why” or “why not?” Expand your vision, your experiences, and your networks to uncover novel approaches to your team's work. Harness this exposure to become more creative and innovative.

Introduction and Application

“When the situation gets too complex, it's impossible to follow the manual because there is no manual.” (Godin, 2010, p. 220)

Introducing a great product in today's environment is challenging. The demands and pressures on the product team have increased due to competitive environments, complex solutions, changing technology, and demands for faster time to market. Differentiating a product in the current marketplace requires thinking and doing differently and leading teams to think and do differently.

The role of the Product Owner is crucial to the success of product driven projects. Steve Jobs revolutionized the approach to product development. He taught the world that effective product development not only requires a mastery of traditional techniques but the knowledge, wisdom and ability to bend, throw out or rewrite the rules when required. Many of the techniques embraced by Steve Jobs are techniques that are also embraced by agile project management. Exhibit 1 compares some of the differences between the “traditional” approach and the “Steve Jobs” approach.

“Traditional Approach” versus “The ‘Steve Jobs’ Approach”

Exhibit 1 – “Traditional Approach” versus “The ‘Steve Jobs’ Approach”

Through his example, Steve Jobs demonstrated the importance of the Product Owner in the development of a product. The next section addresses the role of a Product Owner in a product-driven project.

The Role of the Product Owner

“The primary goal of a product owner is to represent the needs and desires of the stakeholder community …” – Scott Ambler (, 2012)

The Product Owner is essential to product driven projects. Traditionally, this role had been absorbed by either a project owner or sponsor. In problematic projects, this role is non-existent or not well defined. Steve Jobs’ example demonstrated that a Product Owner needs to be focused and needs to be the product “tyrant.”

On agile projects, specifically on Scrum (an agile method), the Product Owner is an essential role and the most demanding role on the product development team. On Scrum, the Product Owner is one of only three defined roles. The other two defined roles are the ScrumMaster and the Team. The Product Owner owns all aspects of the product and provides direction to the team for all product-related concerns. The ScrumMaster facilitates the Scrum process but is not a Project Manager in the traditional sense. The team is responsible for developing the product.

The following is a list of commonly accepted responsibilities for a Product Owner on agile projects:

  • Sets and communicates the product vision to the team.
  • Prioritizes the product features, thereby prioritizing the work of the team.
  • Represents the customer.
  • Owns the product scope.
  • Determines which activities contribute the most business value.
  • Controls the product backlog (or features).
  • Is available to the team.
  • Participates in daily progress review sessions.
  • Is responsible for product communications.
  • Participates in the product review sessions.
  • Accepts or rejects work done.
  • Is ultimately responsible for delivering the product to the consumer.

Steve Jobs proved to be the ultimate Product Owner on many of the projects that delivered revolutionary products for Apple. One of the key aspects to successful product ownership is the vision. The next section addresses the setting of the vision.

Setting the Vision

“Before beginning a hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.” — Winnie the Pooh (Winnie the Pooh quotes, 2005)

“I want to put a ding in the universe.” — Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs quotes, 2001)

Steve Jobs was a powerful visionary. In his book, The Steve Jobs Way, Jay Elliot references a remark made by Trip Hawkins, a former engineer at Apple: “When Steve believes in something, the power of that vision can literally sweep aside any objections, problems or whatever. They just cease to exist.” (Elliot, 2011, p. 30)

Some of the lessons learned about vision from Steve Jobs, which can be applied to product-driven projects, include the following:

  • Have a clear vision. Make it simple and easy to understand. A clear vision can become the mantra for the team. Clear vision provides leadership for the team.
  • Communicate your vision. Always communicate. Become the evangelist for your product by communicating consistently and often.
  • Less is more powerful. A simple, easy to understand vision is more powerful than a wordy proposition. “Put a ding in the universe” (Steve Jobs quotes, 2001) is a simple but powerful vision. This was Steve Jobs’ vision for his life's work.
  • Delight your customer. Capture the essence of delighting your customer with your product vision. Give them something unique.
  • Use your vision to drive the details. “Steve's level of focus on details is one of the most crucial aspects of his success and the success of his products.” (Elliot, 2011, p. 32) Consider your vision when designing your product and sweating the details.
  • Use your vision to provide focus. Decision making should be driven by your product vision. Focus helps you, as Product Owner determine when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” Use focus to make your vision become a reality.

A clear product vision leads to more effective project starts, provides consistent direction to your team and leads to effective project close-outs and product deliveries. You may have heard of the “SMART” acronym for developing more effective vision and objective statements but for excellent products, you might consider the “SMARTER” acronym:

  • S – Specific (be clear and specific)
  • M – Measurable (when will we know it's done?)
  • A – Achievable (achievable by the right team, so choose your team wisely)
  • R – Realistic (but consider new “realities”)
  • T – Time-bound (set a deadline)
  • E – Explosive (go “over the top”)
  • R – Responsive (responsive to the consumer's needs)

Jim Highsmith, a thought leader on agile projects, recommends developing your vision by “designing the box” or by envisioning the final “product box.” You should also consider if your vision will pass the “elevator” test; can you effectively communicate your vision in an elevator ride? (Highsmith, 2007, p. 24)

Finding Passion for Your Product

“Great products only come from people who are passionate. Great products only come from teams that are passionate.” — Steve Jobs (Elliot, 2011, p. 30)

Passion for your product leads your team to success. Passion helps overcome the many obstacles that can confront the team on the way to product delivery. Some of the lessons learned about finding passion for your product from Steve Jobs include the following:

  • Be passionate about your product. Passion shows.
  • Be the consumer. Go beyond representing the consumer. Be the consumer. Per Jay Elliot, “when Steve creates a product for himself, he believes he's taking every consumer into consideration…” (Elliot, 2011, p. 37)
  • Be the product. If you are the product, ask questions. How do I look? How does the consumer see me? How will I be shipped? How simple am I to use? Of course, the questions will vary depending on the product.
  • Connect your team with the product. Your passion needs to be strong enough that it becomes contagious and every team member gets infected with the same passion. Teams with passion will provide excellent results.
  • Be obsessively dissatisfied. If it doesn't feel right to you as the product owner, then it isn't right. Insist on satisfaction. Don't compromise. Stick to the vision. The iPhone had only one control button because this is what Steve envisioned. He had no idea how it could be done but he wasn't satisfied until it was done. (Elliot, 2011, p. 36)
  • Ask “why not?” When faced with “it can't be done,” ask “why not?” The answers lead to solutions.
  • Pursue perfection. Be relentless in your pursuit of perfection. The details lead to innovation and perfection. Question everything in the pursuit of perfection.

Seeking Simplicity

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” — Albert Einstein (, 1994-2013)

As a product owner, focus on simplicity. Lead your teams to develop products that are easy to use. Make them intuitive. Many of the products by Apple created under Steve Jobs leadership demonstrate the power of simplicity. Two-year-old children can operate an iPad.

Simplicity can be achieved by eliminating clutter. To make a product intuitive and easy to use requires more thought and effort but in the end, sets your product apart. Consistently ask: “is it necessary?” Is documentation necessary? Is the “extra” work necessary? In a project environment, project work that is done for the purpose of the project can be distinguished from product work that is focused on developing the product. Project work can sometimes be burdened with unnecessary requirements. Aim for minimizing project work and focusing on product work.

Simplicity can also lead to elegant design. Encourage innovation by insisting on simplicity. Per the supporting principles of the Agile Manifesto, “Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.” (, 2001)

Leading Small Product-focused Teams

“Steve instinctively understood that some projects need the heat and intensity generated by bringing together a small number of talented people and allowing them to work free of the usual restrictions. In the right circumstances, driven by the right kind of courage, pirates achieve what ‘the Navy’ just can't do. He expected all team members to unleash their full creative and artistic talents. (Later, he'd use this approach for the teams on all projects).” (Elliot, 2011, p. 51)

Lessons learned from Steve Jobs for leading small product-focused teams include the following:

  • Finding the right mix of talent – invest time and resources in finding the “right” team members. Not only should they bring unique skills, talents and perspectives to the team but they should also demonstrate independence of thought and not be “yes” people.
  • Unleashing the talents and creativity of each team member – provide an environment that allows each team member to demonstrate talents and unleash creativity. Invest in and develop a learning environment.
  • Allowing for self-governing teams – while the Product Owner owns the product direction, team members must be free to self-govern the work to be done, The Product Owner needs to provide the “what” to be done, not the “how” the work is to be done. The team should be allowed to determine how best to govern the work to be done. Per the supporting principles behind the Agile Manifesto, “the best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-governing teams.” (, 2001)
  • Removing barriers and making the team self-contained and independent – the environment should keep the team free of organizational interference. In agile Scrum projects, this is usually performed by the ScrumMaster, but in the absence of a ScrumMaster, this should be owned by the Product Owner.

Failing Your Way to Success

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problem.” — Gandhi (, 2010).

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” — Thomas Edison (, 2010)

The Product Owner should learn to accept failure on the path to success. The power of experimenting and embracing change enhance the team experience and ultimately to improved project and product success. Experimentation is used to discover what works. Failing in small steps helps to achieve big successes. Experimentation helps improve the ability to adjust and adapt.

By nature of the definition of a project, all projects are experiments. The agile project approach minimizes risk on large or complex projects by breaking down projects into smaller iterations. Risk is further minimized by addressing by controlling requirements (or “stories”) within each iteration. While there is some risk that some user stories may “fail” or fail to be completed within an iteration, self-organizing teams will work toward successfully completing as many stories as the team's capacity allows.

Lessons learned from the Steve Jobs’ approach to projects regarding failure include the following:

  • Learn from your failures.
  • Be willing to take risks.
  • Accept failure and move forward.
  • Perseverance trumps setbacks.

The agile approach also allows for “retrospectives” to be performed at the end of each iteration to allow the team to determine what worked with the successful efforts versus what didn't work with the failed efforts. The team learns from the retrospectives and adapts to continuously improve.

Holding Frequent Review Sessions

“In addition to the big team retreats that happened every three months … and the impromptu milestone celebrations, there were the ‘meat-and-potatoes’ product review sessions that happened formally every week. Steve believed in very frequent product reviews.” (Elliot, 2011, p. 90)

Holding frequent review sessions is the key to developing excellent products. The traditional project management approach typically called for product reviews late in the project cycle. An agile approach supports holding product review sessions early and throughout the project life cycle. By breaking large complex projects into smaller iterations, with each iteration providing product value, the agile approach, along with the willingness to accept change promotes frequent review sessions. In addition to frequent product reviews, some agile methods also promote a daily “stand-up” review meeting to encourage daily progress. Per the supporting principles of the Agile Manifesto, product development teams should “welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.” (, 2001)

Inspiring Innovation

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” — Peter Drucker

In his book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, Stephen Denning proposes a changing approach to work for organizations, an approach that is “radically” different than what has worked in the past. This proposed approach provides for a system of “continuous innovation” based on seven principles (Denning, 2010, p. 4):

  1. “Focus work on delighting the client.”
  2. “Do work through self-organizing teams.”
  3. “Do work through client-driven iterations.”
  4. “Deliver value to clients in each iteration.”
  5. “Be totally open about impediments to improvement.”
  6. “Create a context for continuous self-improvement by the team.”
  7. “Communicate interactively.”

The items on Denning's list are very consistent with the approach used by Steve Jobs and the approach proposed through agile methods. Although agile project management approaches were originally developed to enhance the software development cycle, these approaches are now being adapted to projects outside of the software development and information technology realms.

A Product Owner can help cultivate an environment of innovation through the following practices:

  • Encourage individuality and unique perspectives.
  • Field your team with “pirates” not “navy” men and women.
  • Encourage constant and open communications.
  • Challenge the status quo and old habits.
  • Make innovative thinking the “norm,” not the exception.
  • Encourage an environment of fun and excitement.


As a Product Owner, strive to think and do differently as you lead you teams to the delivery of exciting new products. Embrace the lessons learned from Steve Jobs. By employing the techniques presented in this paper, you can make a difference.

Agile Manifesto (2001). Retrieved from at

Ambler, S. (2005-2012). The Product Owner Role: A Stakeholder Proxy for Agile Teams. Retrieved from

Cohn, M. (2006). Agile Estimating and Planning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Covey, S. (2004). The 8th Habit, From Effectiveness to Greatness. New York, NY: Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Denning, S. (2010). The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint

Dyer, J., Gregersen, H. & Christensen, C. (2009, December). The Innovator's DNA. Retrieved from

Elliot, J. and Simon, W. (2011). The Steve Jobs Way, Leadership for a New Generation. Philadelphia, PA: Vanguard Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group.

Edison quotes (2010). Retrieved from   at

Gandhi quotes (2010). Retrieved from at

Godin, S. (2010). Linchpin: Are you indispensable? New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Goodreads (2013). Retrieved from at

Highsmith, J. (2007). Agile Projects for IT Partners. Retrieved from at

Quotations by subject: Simplicity (1994-2013). Retrieved 08/19/13 from at

Steve Jobs quotes (2001). Retrieved from at

Winnie the Pooh quotes (2001). Retrieved from, at

© 2013, Eddie Merla, PMI-ACP, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



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